Today, thanks to the internet, there’s a lot more information about therapy and how it works. But that still doesn’t stop some myths from being perpetuated. And perpetuated. These myths might come from television and movies. They might come from friends or colleagues or even strangers. They might come from our own assumptions as we try to fill in the blanks. Below are five common myths, which you may or may not have (mis)interpreted as truths, along with the actual facts.
We think a therapist is just like a friend.
Fact: Unlike a friend, a “therapist skillfully observes your behaviors, patterns, thoughts and feelings,” said Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in New York. Therapists have been trained to sharpen their listening and observational skills. They’re also trained to be aware of their biases and not to let those biases affect their work with clients.
Therapists are fully honest with you, said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, parenting coach and author of The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient and Connected Teens and Tweens. For instance, Duffy has worked with clients who’ve believed that others have abandoned them. But it turns out that these clients actually played prominent roles in their separations.
By being honest, Duffy helps his clients grow and make positive changes. “Otherwise, they run the risk of repeating the pattern in other relationships — pretty ineffective therapy and, in the end, not particularly empathic.”
(This piece explores in greater detail why therapy isn’t the same as talking to a friend.)
We think a therapist’s job is to dole out advice or provide answers.
Fact: A therapist’s job is anything but. In fact, “advice-giving creates dependency,” said Serani, the author of three books on depression, including Depression in Later Life: An Essential Guide. Rather, therapists help you discover your own answers.
What does this look like? According to Serani, advice is: “You should break up with this toxic person” or “Kick this guy to the curb.” However, a therapist might say: “Why do you think you gravitate to these kinds of relationships?” or “What kinds of things do you gain by staying? What kinds of things do you lose by staying?”
Instead of a client simply doing what their therapist says, they arrive at their own insight (a skill they can then apply to other situations in their lives). Therapists also teach clients important skills for everything from managing depression to being assertive.
Serani likened this distinction to the fish analogy: “Why give a person a fish when you can teach a person to fish? Therapy looks to offer insight and self-discovery so problem solving and learning occur on a deeper level — instead of advice just superficially fixing an issue.”
We think a therapist needs to go through what we’ve gone through in order to really help us.
Fact: If you’re struggling with depression, substance abuse or panic attacks, you might think that your therapist needs to have struggled with these issues, too. However, “good clinicians are trained to individualize treatment and help clients with their unique, particular problems,” said Rachel L. Hutt, Ph.D, a psychologist and director of Parenting Services and the Young Adult Program at CBT/DBT Associates in New York City.
Symptoms manifest differently for each individual, even if they have the same disorder. Also, different things will work for different people. “Each client is his or her own expert, and a therapist would gather information from that client to effectively create a treatment plan.” For instance, for one client with depression, eating at nice restaurants might be a pleasant activity. For another client, who’s struggling with both depression and emotional eating, it can make things worse.
As Hutt summed it up, “Our job as therapists is to use the principles and tailor each treatment to each client’s individual needs.”
We think we must feel good after every therapy session.
Fact: There may be times that you leave a session feeling anxious or sad — which doesn’t mean that therapy isn’t working, Hutt said. In therapy you’ll identify and explore a range of emotions and talk about difficult topics, she said.
“Facing distress in the short term is important for many long-term goals.” Hutt shared this example: A therapist is working with a client on facing their fears. This, understandably, feels very distressing. Just talking about our fears can create anxiety. However, over time, with practice, this client is able to tolerate their anxiety, which reduces it, and feel better, she said.
We think therapy will focus on blaming our parents.
Fact: You’ll probably talk about your childhood in therapy, because how you were raised has shaped you today. But, as Serani said, it’s not the only influence. “The world you grew up in, the culture, your friends, the community and your personally textured experiences all come into play.” Your therapist will help you explore the diagnostic reasons for your symptoms, which will include everything from your thinking processes to your current behavioral patterns, she said.
“The goal in therapy is never to blame, but to reduce symptoms by learning who you are — and what your strengths and weaknesses are — so you can create a life that brings more meaning and happiness.”
If you’ve believed any of these myths, it’s totally understandable. Therapy is often misunderstood. But that’s why it’s especially important to ask potential therapists (or a therapist you’re already working with) questions about what you can expect from the process — and from them. No question is too obvious or too silly. It’s essential to be direct with your therapist and always voice any concerns you might have.